LGBT API Community & How to Organize It
New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA)
LGBT Stories: Queer in Asian America
Asian Kaleidoscope Month
University of Florida
9 November 2011
I’d like to begin by thanking the organizers of Asian Kaleidoscope Month for inviting me to speak here at the University of Florida. It’s my first visit to Gainesville and I’m really enjoying the opportunity to see the university and meet all of the wonderful people who have been working so hard to put together this panel and the entire month of events. Id especially like to thank Tresson Canley and Hoang Vi Ho for making my appearance here possible.
I’ve been asked to talk about what the LGBT API community is and how to organize it. To begin with, defining the community requires recognizing that it is an extraordinarily diverse group of people. Not only are there members of the community who trace their origins to every Asian and Pacific Islander (API) society, there are members of the community who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) from every country in the Asia/Pacific region.
In addition to such extraordinary diversity in national origin and ethnicity as well as sexual orientation and gender identity, the LGBT/queer API community is characterized by a far greater range of socioeconomic status than the ‘model minority myth’ would admit: there are APIs and of course LGBt/queer APIs from every class and social stratum, from the wealthiest one percent of American society to the poorest and most marginalized. While there are a lot of APIs with Ph.D.s, there are also enough APIs who never have the opportunity to go to college.
Within the LGBT community, there is a dizzying array of identities as well; even the ‘T’ actually represents a host of gender identities, from those who identify as transsexuals and crossdressers to those who identify as transgendered or genderqueer. And of course, because so many transgendered API immigrants bring with them their culture of origin, some may also self identify in terms of identity categories from their cultures of origin, with such terms as ‘bakla’ or ‘kathooey’ or ‘waria.’
If the LGBT/queer API community is as diverse as the larger API community, that very diversity represents a challenge for activists and advocates attempting to organize it. So the first step for such activists is to recognize the social construction of all identity labels. We as human beings are naturally taxonomic creatures and generate endless categories with which to describe ourselves and others. If we can recognize how ultimately artificial and arbitrary these labels and categories are, we can then reach the fundament of truth that underlies LGBT and API community organizing, which is that members of such communities need to come together because they face oppression based either on race and ethnicity and/or sexual orientation and/or gender identity or gender expression.
In the light of such an insight, ‘organizing’ takes on something that can and should go beyond organizing purely along lines of identity. The point is not simply to bring together people who share a common identity of some kind — as useful as such a project may be — but to bring them together around a common purpose. Hence the task is to use the constructions articulated by identitarian politics to reach beyond the limits of identity formations.
What does that mean in practical terms? Let me give you an example from my own experience as an activist, and that is the work that we did in two different coalitions to get the New York City Council enact the Dignity in All Schools Act in 2004 and the New York state legislature to enact the Dignity for All Students Act in 2010. Both the New York City and New York State DASA statutes prohibit bullying and bias-based harassment based on a comprehensive list of characteristics, including race, ethnicity, religion and national origin as well as sexual orientation and gender defined to include gender identity and gender expression — language that is crucial in including and protecting transgendered and gender-variant people. What’s interesting here is that while both bills were viewed as ‘gay bills’ while pending legislation, they enlisted the support of both LGBT and non-LGBT organizations, including non-LGBT-specific Asian American organizations. The NYC DASA Coalition in particular engaged the active participation of API groups, including the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund (AALDEF), the Coalition for Asian American Children & Families (CACF) and the Sikh Coalition — reflecting the fact that so much of the bullying in New York City public schools is directed towards API students as well as LGBT students, or those perceived to be queer.
So the question of how to organize becomes a question of ‘how to organize what?’ and ‘how to organize for what?’ It is the objective of the campaign that must drive its organization; and if we are talking about a movement, it must be a ‘purpose-driven movement,’ to coin a phrase. The strategy and tactics of the movement or organization must flow from its purpose, and if that objective or set of objectives is clear, then the organizing techniques will become readily apparent.
Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) (nyagra.com), a statewide transgender advocacy organization that she co-founded in 1998, and president of the board of directors of Queens Pride House (queenspridehouse.org), which she co-founded in 1997. Park also co-founded Iban/Queer Koreans of New York in 1997 and served as its coordinator from 1997 to 1999, as well as the Out People of Color Political Action Club (OutPOCPAC.org), the first political club by and for LGBT people of color in New York City, which she co-founded in 2001, serving as co-president of the club from 2007-2010. And she co-founded the Guillermo Vasquez Independent Democratic Club of Queens (GVIDCQ) in July 2002, serving as vice-president from 2002-2004.